Because of the nature of your engineering education, you should not be surprised to find that in ten to fifteen years after leaving school, your career direction may be very far from your original area of expertise. This is not cause for alarm but a validation of the strength and flexibility of your engineering degree and the great career variety that is available when you elect the industrial career path.
When you consider that only one-third of the courses that you take as an undergraduate are unique to your specialization, it is not surprising that you will have a high degree of flexibility in pursuing your engineering career.
Because the balance of your course work encompasses other engineering disciplines as well as mathematics, science, and liberal arts, you have the foundation for several career scenarios in business and industry.
The diversity of opportunity also brings a challenge. The many job titles that you will find in the field of engineering might be overwhelming at first. A quick glance at the engineering section of job websites or publications will reveal a wide variety of job titles, everything from applications engineer to xerography engineer! As you read the ads, you will see that some applications engineers require a B.S. in mechanical engineering, while others require a B.S. in electrical engineering or maybe computer engineering. All of this reflects the variety that awaits you.
Now is the time to begin regularly reading trade publications in your discipline, including the classified sections in the back. This will help you become familiar with the job titles and the responsibilities of people in your field and with specific industry advances. You should also read a general engineering trade publication so that you stay abreast of developments in fields that complement your own. As you gain more experience, both on-the-job and through continuing education, this practice will help you see emerging trends and how to prepare for them.
Some Career Choices in Engineering
According to Peterson’s Job Opportunities for Engineering, Science, and Computer Graduates, there are seven functional areas in which engineers tend to work: accounting and finance; administration; information systems processing; marketing and sales; production/operations; research and development; and technical/professional services. These functional areas can be further categorized into two groupings: those functions that require the direct application of one’s engineering expertise and those functions that do not, in and of themselves, have an engineering emphasis but require an engineering background. These tracks are often referred to as the technical track versus the
To advance within an organization, it is important to learn about the professional and educational experiences of its senior management. This information will help you evaluate whether this is a company where you can build
the kind of career you envision. Do not be surprised to find that the careers of senior management were NOT straight paths to the top. Most of today’s senior managers and executives have advanced their careers through a wide variety of positions within various companies, business units, and engineering functions.
If your goal is to someday be part of an executive team, you need to study the promotion practices of the industries and companies in which you are interested. If you want to go as far as you can in a manner that best fits you, it is important to know which businesses and industries provide what you are seeking.
The Functional Areas on the Technical Track
Engineers who want to develop their engineering expertise tend to elect the “technical track” as their career path. In the functional areas associated with this track, engineers can acquire advanced knowledge in the engineering, scientific, and technical aspects of their discipline.
Research and Development (R&D). Research engineers are engaged in systematic and critical investigations leading to the acquisition of knowledge for a specific application. As a separate component, development engineers design, construct, and test prototypes and models, including setting up and operating pilot plants (small-scale operations that are tested before large-scale production facilities are built). In this area, product development and process development refer to the development of new or improved products or manufacturing processes.
Previously, research engineers in industry and academia were engaged in investigation that might or might not be for a specific purpose. However, the global market has put increased emphasis on solving specific problems or developing new product lines in order to remain competitive and to sustain future corporate growth. To this end, some corporations continue to support centralized R&D and/or R&D units within major operating facilities, but in recent years R&D has seen dramatic cuts in many organizations. Some companies have cut their own research expenditures but have developed partnerships with government laboratories and university faculty and municipal research parks in order to maintain a competitive edge.
Microsoft is a notable exception. In an interview on CNN, Bill Gates talked about corporate research and its role at Microsoft. According to Gates, “research is the lifeblood of innovation in the economy.” However, even the recognized leaders in corporate research, Xerox and AT&T, have challenges translating their research into profitable products. Microsoft Research made a commitment not only to have great researchers, but also to get from research to usable products.
Every year, Microsoft holds Tech Fest, a company festival where Microsoft engineers and computer scientists get to see and discuss all of Microsoft’s research advances. As a result, some very innovative technologies have been included in products such as operating systems and Xbox. For example, the depiction of grass and trees in Xbox are very realistic. That’s the result of a technique developed by one of Microsoft’s researchers.
Production. Engineers in production are central to the mission of the business or industry. This is the area in which ideas are taken from the design stage to finished, marketable products. The production engineers are involved in every phase of producing the product, from specifying materials to designing the work flow. The production area is responsible for all tasks necessary to produce a product or system on time and within budget. This generally includes scheduling materials and personnel as well as specifying machine usage, materials-handling procedures, and/or control methods. It often includes personnel training and supervision.
With increased globalization of product manufacturing, production engineers are more frequently sent to overseas facilities to monitor and guide corporate production specifications. This means working with diverse teams of people to improve efficiency or accomplish a production goal.
While manufacturing engineering is often associated with making a product, construction engineering and mining engineering may also be included in this category. The processes and the skills necessary for producing a building
or extracting raw materials from the earth are very similar to what happens in a manufacturing environment.
Technical/Professional Services. Technical services include a wide range of functions in support of the business or industry. These functions can range from design and testing to feasibility studies and consulting. Engineers in this area assume responsibility for short-term or long-term projects that need resolution so that the product, process, or system can be improved. For example, a recent hire at International Paper provides technical support to various converting facilities around the country. As a mechanical engineer, his responsibilities include troubleshooting machinery that is not performing properly and analyzing production operations to identify areas that need improvement.
While project engineer is the most visible job title in this functional area, technical services include a wide range of occupation specialties such as chemical engineer, materials engineer, and biomedical engineer. There are also engineering positions named according to the technology with which they are associated, such as the control systems engineer and the environmental engineer.
Positions in this functional area exist at both corporate and plant levels and provide excellent opportunities for new engineers. New engineers might think it best to start in the corporate office, but the majority of fast-track engineers, those who move up the career ladder the fastest, start at the plant level. One reason that plant-level experience is preferred is that these positions provide an excellent way to learn about all aspects of the product, the company, and its customers and competition. Success at the plant level can lead to senior engineering positions and management positions at plant and corporate levels.
As with the production area in industry, the technical services area in service industries is often considered a “line” function. However, technical services are not limited to industry career paths. You will find technical services opportunities in the consulting, government, and academic career paths as well.
The Functional Areas on the Management Track
While you will need to have experiences in some of the technical/engineering areas of the industry or company, engineers in the management track gain experience in the business side as well. These areas typically include:
- Marketing and sales. Although there are certainly exceptions as a result of the breadth of academic preparation that engineers have, most engineers involved in this functional area work for businesses and industries that produce technical products or services. Sometimes their work is actually referred to as “technology marketing.” In many companies this is one of the better paths to corporate management for engineers, as it not only requires technical expertise but it provides a broad overview of the customer base, research and development, production, distribution, and product reliability. While some organizations hire entry-level engineers in technical sales, this functional area generally seeks experienced engineers.
- Information systems processing. Engineers in this functional area are concerned with software applications, not computer equipment. This area of business and industry is of paramount importance because the leading software applications, such as SAP, not only manage administrative functions but also production controls and distribution. Those engineers involved in this area analyze, design, develop, and implement these types of systems as the backbone of the company or organization. Because of the diversity of opportunity
and application, engineers in this area can concentrate on business systems applications, scientific applications, or other analytical specialties such as mathematical or statistical modeling.
- Accounting and finance. While all types of engineers are involved in this area, industrial engineers seem to be most in demand because of their quantitative skills. In this functional area, engineers become involved in
financial analysis, operations research, strategic planning, and actuarial work. The settings in which these engineers are employed range from hospitals to manufacturing companies. Banks and insurance companies increasingly recruit engineers for this area.
- Administration. In this area, engineers are involved in the nontechnical aspects of business and industry. This may include government compliance or community relations. Nonetheless, the technical expertise of engineers
in this area is a basic requirement. In large organizations, the administrative functions have traditionally been performed from the corporate headquarters. While this is still true in some companies, increasingly these functions are being performed closer to the technical operations because of corporate downsizing, increased reliance on outside suppliers, and the proliferation of midsize and small businesses and industries. This is more likely to be an area into which an engineer is moved or promoted, rather than an area in which an entry-level engineer begins.
Beyond the Functional Areas
To provide a broad overview of the functions and career possibilities in the various functional areas within an organization, many large employers now hire engineers into rotational developmental programs after college. These
programs can be called Engineering Development Programs (EDPs), Management Development Programs (MDPs), or Leadership Development Programs (LDPs). When hired into one of these programs, you can expect to hold four- to twelve-month rotational assignments, over two or more years, through some of the functional areas mentioned above.
These programs offer an excellent opportunity to gain a good overview of the organization. At the same time it provides the organization the opportunity to assess you for possible higher-level positions within the organization
during the course of your career.
Some of these programs work in tandem with selected business schools. When the time is right the employer will have successful graduates of the developmental program apply to these schools for admission on a part-time or full-time basis. In many cases, the employer pays these costs in return for your remaining with the organization for a specified number of years.
If the developmental program does not have an associated business school and you want to attend business school after working several years, it is important to know that most top business schools will not count the years that you spent rotating to different functional areas. You will still need to have three or more years of experience beyond the rotational program. Business schools want to see your impact within an organization. Therefore, if you are eager to go on to business school as soon as possible you might want to consider “line” positions in a specific functional area, particularly one of the technical functional areas that are highly valued by business schools.
How Engineering Careers Progress in Industry
The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics identified eight different engineering levels that described the progression of responsibility for engineers. As industry flattened organizational structures, the eight engineering levels have become five. However, that doesn’t mean faster advancement. In fact, progress from one level to another takes longer because the scope of responsibilities and corporate expectations of the original eight levels of engineering are still expected for advancement today. The following list shows how Hoover’s Online describes the five levels of engineering for mechanical engineers:
- Level I mechanical engineer. Designs, develops, and tests all aspects of mechanical components, equipment, and machinery. Applies knowledge of engineering principles to design products such as engines, instruments, controls, robots, machines, etc. May be involved in fabrication, operation, application, installation, and/or repair of mechanical products. May require a bachelor’s degree in engineering and zero to three years of experience in the field or in a related area. Has knowledge of commonly used concepts, practices, and procedures within a particular field. Relies on instructions and preestablished guidelines to perform the functions of the job. Works under immediate supervision. Primary job functions do not typically require exercising independent judgment. Typically reports to a supervisor or manager. Alternate job title: entry-level mechanical engineer.
- Level II mechanical engineer. Designs, develops, and tests all aspects of mechanical components, equipment, and machinery. Applies knowledge of engineering principles to design products such as engines, instruments, controls, robots, machines, etc. May be involved in fabrication, operation, application, installation, and/or repair of mechanical products. Requires a bachelor’s degree in engineering and two to five years of experience in the field or in a related area. Familiar with standard concepts, practices, and procedures within a particular field. Relies on limited experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals. Performs a variety of tasks. Works under general supervision; typically reports to a supervisor or manager. A certain degree of creativity and latitude is required. Alternate job title: intermediate-level mechanical engineer.
- Level III mechanical engineer. Designs, develops, and tests all aspects of mechanical components, equipment, and machinery. Applies knowledge of engineering principles to design products such as engines, instruments, controls, robots, machines, etc. May be involved in fabrication, operation, application, installation, and/or repair of mechanical products. Requires a bachelor’s degree in engineering and four to six years of experience in the field or in a related area. Familiar with a variety of the field’s concepts, practices, and procedures. Relies on experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals. Performs a variety of complicated tasks. May report to an executive or a manager. A wide degree of creativity and latitude is expected.
- Level IV mechanical engineer. Designs, develops, and tests all aspects of mechanical components, equipment, and machinery. Applies knowledge of engineering principles to design products such as engines, instruments, controls, robots, machines, etc. May be involved in fabrication, operation, application, installation, and/or repair of mechanical products. Requires a bachelor’s degree in engineering and five to eight years of experience in the field or in a related area. Familiar with a variety of the field’s concepts, practices, and procedures. Relies on extensive experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals. Performs a variety of tasks. May lead and direct the work of others. A wide degree of creativity and latitude is expected. Typically reports to a manager or head of a unit/department. Alternate job title: mechanical engineer—project lead.
- Level V mechanical engineer. Designs, develops, and tests all aspects of mechanical components, equipment, and machinery. Applies knowledge of engineering principles to design products such as engines, instruments, controls, robots, machines, etc. May be involved in fabrication, operation, application, installation, and/or repair of mechanical products. Requires a bachelor’s degree in engineering and at least eight years of experience in the field or in a related area. Familiar with a variety of the field’s concepts, practices, and procedures. Relies on extensive experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals. Performs a variety of tasks. May lead and direct the work of others. A wide degree of creativity and latitude is expected. Typically reports to a manager or head of a unit/department. Alternate job titles: mechanical engineer-consultant/mechanical engineer-specialist.
Source: Hoover’s Online, http://swz-hoovers.salary.com, May 2007